During the early years of search engines, the search experience was largely driven, and limited, by technical capabilities: server & storage space, how to determine result relevancy, and the indexability of content and information. However, as systems and people have become more technologically advanced, the search experience has done the same.
When you consider the sheer volume of data and information on the Internet, and layer in developments like voice assistants, robust natural language processing, machine and deep learning, and multi- and omnichannel approaches to consumer experiences, you’ll quickly find that the opportunities and technical possibilities for search engines now seem more limitless than ever.
The early search engine paradigms of indexing all web content and relying primarily on keywords, backlinks, and advertising to determine result rankings would be laughed at today. Now, the search experience is increasingly about the user’s experience, which means that understanding both UX and SEO is key to having a strong search presence and value.
This article is the first in our series of four upcoming posts focused on why it’s important for companies to combine UX and SEO when creating, redesigning, or just updating a website.
The Search Algorithm Evolution
Though recognizable, the Google that dominates the search market today has clearly undergone significant transformations since its inception in 1998 (starting with its name… it was initially called “BackRub”). In addition to the significant performance, storage, and server improvements, Google’s greatest differentiator and achievement is its search algorithm, which determines how web content is crawled, evaluated, ranked, and displayed on results pages.
Simply comparing the search results for the word “cat” on 1998’s Google versus modern Google gives a sense of just how far search engines like Google have come.
Google updates its algorithm thousands of times each year (over 3,000 times in 2018 alone), including changes like bug fixes, temporary experiments, and core algorithm updates that are typically more significant and far-reaching. Some major algorithm updates have focused on restricting and reducing value for spammy or keyword-stuffed domains (the Penguin algorithm), while others have helped Google’s algorithm expand how it understands and values quality on-page content (the Panda algorithm).
The changes that Google makes to its algorithm are reflective of, and responsive to, its goal to get users to the content and information that they seek efficiently and effectively. Google and other search engines don’t want to send users to domains with clunky interfaces, limited internal links, low-quality page content, and hard-to-navigate page structures. Bad search results don’t improve the search experience and could even drive people to other search engines, so it’s important to make sure the top results are quality options.
How Does a Search Engine Understand the User Experience?
Relying on user behavior is an excellent way to understand a domain’s usefulness and popularity, but this creates interesting complications: how can a search engine actually understand a user’s experience when it isn’t a living, breathing entity? Can a machine-learning algorithm understand the differences between a good and bad UX when all it really sees is code and structure?
The answer is surprisingly simple: Google is monitoring how users interact with domains contained in its index. If your site has high user interaction scores, then your domain gains organic value and increases your chances of appearing at the top of search results. The reverse is the same: if people are not using and exploring your site, then you’re going to be passed over for a competitor doing a better job.
Though there are many, many metrics tied to how Google evaluates a domain, three of the most important are:
- User Interaction: Google keeps track of user interaction metrics to evaluate a domain’s relevance for a particular query. They can be broken into three basic segments:
- Bounce Rate – whether or not a searcher leaves your domain after clicking the URL in search results. If they stay and explore the site, then your bounce rate decreases
- Session Duration – how much time users spend reviewing and reading page content. High ToS numbers indicate that users are reading and using the content
- Pages per Session – how many pages a searcher visits after landing on the site. More pages per session show users are actively searching and navigating through the site and interacting
- Site Speed: Users want fast, interactive websites they can use quickly and easily. If your site is slow, then there could be significant impacts to your user interaction metrics.
- In 2018, Google changed its search results database from desktop sites to mobile sites, which means site speed is more important than ever
- Domains with bad page formatting, too much junk code, huge image files, and improper browser caching can also be slow
- Google’s PageSpeed Insights and Lighthouse tools are excellent ways to evaluate your domain’s overall speed and performance
- User Goal and Intent: Google wants users to find the right result and engage with the selected domain, so it’s important that page layouts and formatting match a user’s intent
- If you’re running a lead-gen or informational website, then you’d want a layout that focuses on the page’s content without putting obstacles in the user’s path
- If you’re running an ecommerce website, then you want to use a product landing page layout that makes it easy to review and purchase your products
There are some important distinctions to make when it comes to how Google evaluates user interaction. Informational domains, like Wikipedia or major news sites, likely have high session duration numbers but might have a low pages-per-session count with a very high bounce rate. This could indicate that users are finding the information they need, reading through the details, most likely are not seeking related articles, and are leaving the site. Google sees this, understands that people are likely finding what they want, and attaches value to that domain.
On the other hand, your average ecommerce domain might have high session duration numbers and multiple pages-per-session with a low bounce rate. This could mean that customers are shopping around and finding what they want, which is exactly what Google wants to see. If you flip this and see low session durations, reduced pages-per-session numbers, or a very high bounce rate, then you might be able to infer that customers aren’t finding what they want and are leaving. Google will leave right behind them.
Search Engine Results Page Structure
The visual manifestation of Google’s algorithm is the search engine results page (SERP). All of the crawling, data collection, analysis, and ranking work that the search engine and its algorithm conduct do not have any value to the end-user until it is all generated as a results page. To provide users with the best possible experience (and therefore, to realize the greatest efficacy of the search engine), a list of links just isn’t going to cut it. For that reason, Google continues to evolve and improve how content is displayed to its users on the SERP.
The addition of rich snippets, like news stories, the knowledge graph with featured information, media carousels, questions & answers, etc. are Google’s way of helping its users find the information that they are seeking successfully and quickly. At the end of the day, that is how Google determines its efficacy: whether its users are successful and satisfied. That means it’s Google’s job to figure out what its users want, what they care about, and what they are looking for, and to create an algorithm that can deliver that to them in a way that aligns with their goals.
One of the key ways in which Google attempts to understand a user’s intent is through its use of Natural Language Processing, a form of AI that allows computers to better understand language and its intricacies. Google uses Natural Language Processing to identify a user’s intent and goal with their query so that they can return the content that the user seeks. In order to get a feel for how Google does this, quickly conduct a search for “coffee,” and notice what is returned. While this can be affected by your location, past behavior, etc., you might see things like:
- a map with nearby coffee shops
- the coffee Wikipedia page
- nutrition information for coffee
- a link to shop for coffee on Amazon or another retailer
Now, conduct a search for “best coffee” to see how different the results are. You are likely seeing a page that is much more focused on coffee products:
- popular or recommended products
- a Q&A panel with questions about coffee brands, types, or how to choose a coffee
- a map with nearby coffee shops filtered by customer ratings
- links to pages that rank or rate coffee beans & shops
- buying guides created to help readers select their perfect coffee
A search for a term like “coffee” is interpreted by Google as a request for general information and gives little indication of the searcher’s intent. However, the simple addition of an adjective like “best” provides Google with additional context that helps to determine that you are likely looking for ratings, rankings, or a recommendation of a product. It also likely understands that quality is important to you, while general information (like the coffee Wikipedia page) and coffee imagery are less important to you. Google is becoming increasingly savvy about identifying and interpreting its users’ journeys and intentions and continues to evolve the way it structures and returns results accordingly.
The Future of UX and SEO
Search Engine Optimization is now, more than ever, about more than how a search engine experiences and interprets your site; it’s about the user’s experience and how understanding things like user behavior, intent, and the journey can help search engines deliver the best possible outcomes.
Over the next few posts, we will dive deeper into the opportunities and benefits associated with fusing UX & SEO methods, practices, and insights, and how these areas can help create a stellar experience for both the human and robot users of your website.
We will discuss:
- How to create a site structure that is user-friendly and SEO-optimized
- What experience scent is, why it matters for your SEO, and how to design your site accordingly
- What other opportunities (beyond your ranking alone) exist for you in SEO and how you can set yourself up to capitalize on some of those opportunities
Have questions or want to know more about combining UX and SEO in design & function? Continue reading our series, or contact us for professional digital marketing and experience design advice and/or services.